Who is Park Geun-hye?
Born in 1952, Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. In 1998, she was appointed vice chairperson of the Grand National Party and began serving the first of five consecutive terms in the National Assembly. On December 19, 2012, Park made history with her election as South Korea's first female president. However, she was impeached in December 2016 amid revelations of a corruption scandal involving a longtime associate, leading to her formal removal from office and arrest the following spring.
Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president, was born on February 2, 1952, in Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea. She is the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who served from 1961 until his death by assassination in 1979, and former first lady Yuk Young-soo, who was shot and killed in the throes of a 1974 assassination attempt on her husband.
Park Chung-hee's presidency divided South Korea and later became a controversial part of his daughter's campaign to become elected president herself. Critics called him a dictator who carried out human rights abuses and delayed the onset of democracy in South Korea; supporters claimed that he transformed the economy and helped the country recover following the Korean War.
Thrust into Politics
Following her high school graduation, Park Geun-hye enrolled at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1974. That same year, she suffered a tremendous tragedy: Her mother was shot and killed by North Korean assassin Mun Segwang, whose bullet was intended for the president. Citizens deeply mourned the death of Yuk Young-soo, a highly popular and beloved first lady.
Amidst her personal grief, Park was instated as the nation's acting first lady—a title requiring newfound responsibility for a recent college graduate, then just 22 years old. But Park acclimated well to the political world: Early into her role as first lady, she gracefully and efficiently greeted dignitaries and conducted affairs of state, among a number of other responsibilities.
Five years after her mother's murder, tragedy struck again: Park's father, President Park Chung-hee, was assassinated at a dinner by his own intelligence chief, Kim Jae-kyu, on October 26, 1979.
Member of the National Assembly
Following her service as first lady, Park continued to flourish in the South Korean political world, becoming vice chairperson of the Grand National Party in 1998. (The GNP had been established one year earlier, unifying the financially struggling New Korea Party and the Democratic Party.) Also in 1998, she began serving the first of five consecutive terms in the National Assembly. During that period, she developed a clear goal of not only unifying South Korea's party system, but unifying and strengthening the nation as a whole.
Park became chairperson of the GNP's presidential election committee in 2003, and the following year she was elected chairperson of the GNP. (The Party was struggling at the time, after leading a failed attempt to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun.) She set her sights on the presidency in 2007 but wound up losing in the primaries to Lee Myung-bak, who went on to win the presidential election.
In 2012, the GNP was renamed the Saenuri ("New Frontier") Party. Park remained a prominent figure of the Saenuri Party, serving as chairperson of its emergency committee.
South Korea's First Female President
In a historic election held on December 19, 2012, Park defeated 59-year-old liberal opponent and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in for the South Korean presidency—living up to her moniker as the "Queen of Elections" and, most notably, becoming the nation's first female president.
Sworn in as president in February 2013, Park promised a "new era" of government and that she would be a "president for the people." Not married, she noted that she was "married" to her country, and would strive for unity and prosperity while maintaining caution with the threat emanating from North Korea.
However, Park was soon criticized for her using her power to silence opposition and she became one of the country’s most unpopular leaders, according to polls. She suffered further damage to her reputation in the aftermath of a 2014 ferry accident, in which more than 300 people were killed.
Political Scandal, Impeachment and Trial
In October 2016, Park became embroiled in a corruption scandal which ultimately led to her political downfall. She was accused of extortion, abuse of power, bribery and allowing her friend Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late religious cult leader, access to classified information. Not only did Choi have access to classified material, she also reportedly edited Park's speeches, received her overseas itinerary in advance and even told the president how to dress.
Upon hearing the news, South Korean citizens wasted no time in expressing their shock and outrage. For six weeks, an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million protestors took to the streets demanding that Park be thrown out of office, according to Time magazine. Park’s approval rating dropped to a dismal four percent. On December 9, 2016, South Korea’s National Assembly accused Park of “extensive and serious violations of the Constitution and the law," and voted to impeach her.
Park apologized for the scandal on three occasions, and asserted that she had not personally gained from her actions. “My heart is crushed when I think I cannot resolve the deep disappointment and anger of the people even if I apologize 100 times,” she said in a statement.
Park's powers were suspended in December, but she remained in office until March 10, 2017, when a South Korean court removed her from office, the first impeachment of a democratically elected official in the country's history. She was arrested at the end of the month, and formally indicted on 18 criminal charges in mid-April.
In late May, after Moon Jae-in emerged victorious in the 19th presidential election of the Republic of Korea, proceedings began in the criminal trial for Park. As she awaited her fate in a detention facility outside of Seoul, other high-profile figures connected to the corruption scandal, including Choi Soon-sil and Samsung executive Lee Jae-yong, drew prison sentences for their involvement.
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